Shannon Minter was born on Valentine’s Day, 1961. He grew up female in a close-knit family and faith community in East Texas. In high school, Shannon came to the conclusion that he was lesbian, and eventually came out to his family as such. 

After graduating from University of Texas at Austin, Shannon attended Cornell Law School. During his last year there, he began to identify as transgender. He graduated from Cornell in 1993, and in 1996 began transitioning. 

Shannon thought that after being rejected by his family for being lesbian, coming out as transgender might somehow be easier on him and them. It was the opposite. The resulting rift in his immediate family and extended church community took decades to heal.

Shannon has devoted virtually his entire career to the quest for LGBTQ legal equality. Many of his cases have set precedents that safeguard LGBTQ rights. In 2001, he successfully advocated for a woman named Sharon Smith to file a wrongful death suit after a neighbor’s dog killed her partner. In 2003, he defended the custody rights of a transgender father. In 2008, he was lead counsel for same-sex couples in the case that ultimately instituted marriage equality in California. 

In 2005, Shannon received the Ford Foundation’s Leadership for a Changing World Award. In 2009, California Lawyer named him one of their California Lawyers of the Year. In 2015, Shannon was invited by President Obama to interview and recommend potential candidates for senior positions within the White House staff. And when the world seemed to turn upside down in November 2016, Shannon rose to the occasion, securing an injunction to stop President Trump’s proposed ban on transgender people in the military. 

Today, Shannon serves as legal director for NCLR and on the boards of Faith in America and the Transgender Law & Policy Institute. He lives in Washington DC with his wife, Robin. 

OUTWORDS was honored to sit down with Shannon in August 2016, at the tail end of the Lavender Law conference in Washington DC. Shannon was clearly exhausted, and perhaps for this reason, very reflective. His stories of growing up surrounded by love in East Texas, and then having that love withdrawn, were told through lots of tears. Afterwards, Shannon quickly posed for a couple of portraits, then headed home to Robin. 
Mason Funk: [00:00:00] Tell me your first and last name please and spell them.
Shannon Minter: Shannon Minter, S-H-A-N-N-O-N, M-I-N-T-E-R.
Mason Funk: In spite of telling me that you're sick and tired of telling your personal story, could you tell me your personal story, starting in east Texas and what year you're born and what your family is like.
Shannon Minter: I was born in 1961 in Texas, a rural part of Texas, east Texas. My parents are both from the same very small town
Shannon Minter: [00:00:30] and both of their parents are from the same small town. That was my experience in my early years and it was really awesome. It was really wonderful. I had this great extended family. Just had a really happy, happy childhood with just, I just fully had the best family. It was a great place to be a kid. Went around in the woods and doing hunting and fishing with my dad.
Shannon Minter: [00:01:00] Nobody really cared. I was born a girl, so I was born a female. No one really cared about me being a tomboy. It was great, but you know, they're conservative and Christian. Not deeply, not fundamentalist or anything like that, but definitely devout people.
Shannon Minter: [00:01:30] Sorry, it's an emotional topic. It was when I realized, when I got older I realize, I didn't know that I was transgender. I couldn't really figure out what was going on, but I knew that I was attracted to girls. I thought I was lesbian. I came out when my parents found out that I had a girlfriend when I was 17.
Shannon Minter: [00:02:00] That was just a real bad experience. They were very upset and had all the mistaken information that a lot of people had then, some people still I guess that, they just thought I was doing something wrong and sinful. That I was choosing to do that and trying to hurt them and just trying to be rebellious and hurtful to them.
Shannon Minter: [00:02:30] They were very rejecting and it was devastating to me because I did you know, I love them. Sorry about that. I loved them very much. It was hard to, I felt bad about it. I kind of thought all those things a little bit too.
Shannon Minter: [00:03:00] I struggled with that and struggled with feeling cut off from my whole family. I really, really love my grandparents and I had all this, and I still have some left, great aunts and uncles. It was just really hard to feel so alienated from my whole family. I felt like I had to hide and I tried to hide being queer.
Shannon Minter: [00:03:30] I mean, I don't want to give you a blow by blow every year, just struggled for a long time like a lot of people do. I went out to college and cut myself off pretty much from my whole family. Because it was just too painful. It's too painful to be around them and have to hide so much and feel bad about being lesbian, as I thought it was.
Shannon Minter: [00:04:00] I thought and I hoped, and then I ended up going to law school and end up working for the national center for lesbian rights. I came out as, figured out that I was transgender when I was about 35, my mid 30's and transitioned. I was hoping that, that would go, that my parents would deal with that better than they had. I don't know why, I just thought maybe they would.
Shannon Minter: [00:04:30] I thought maybe they might have over the years come to feel that maybe they hadn't handled me coming out as a lesbian very well. Because we still you know, we maintain relationships, it was just distant. That day, that was wrong, they were even more upset I think when I transitioned. At that point they told me that I should not come home anymore.
Shannon Minter: [00:05:00] That if I came to see them, that it would ... Because you can't hide being transgender. Everybody would know. Especially because they live in such a small town. They would have to move.
Shannon Minter: [00:05:30] That went on for about 7 years. I didn't see any of my family,
Shannon Minter: [00:06:00] sorry, during that time. I got married in 2001. That was really wonderful. I did have an aunt and uncle that also lived in that town. It was actually my father's brother, married my mother's sister.
Shannon Minter: [00:06:30] They're very close to me, this aunt and uncle. They'd always been really super loving and supportive and I knew they still love me and didn't care about anything. It was wonderful. It took a lot of for them to come out to my wedding. I got married outside, in Half Moon Bay outside of San Francisco. It was a pretty big deal for them to,
Shannon Minter: [00:07:00] knowing that my parents were not very accepting, for them to just go and come out anyway. That was great. I mean that was a real turning point for me and them too, I think. Because they saw that I was really happy and I had a whole community of people. I think just seeing, it think it helped them to understand that I was getting married. I think it just helped them to understand
Shannon Minter: [00:07:30] my life better, basically. They were great, it was so wonderful. My uncle spoke at our wedding and he was just so sweet and everybody loved him, they loved both of them. My aunt, she's passed away now, they both have. She was an English teacher and my wife has a nephew
Shannon Minter: [00:08:00] who's a Shakespearean actor. We were all standing in Half Moon Bay and one point they spontaneously did the whole balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet, it was just fun, it was cool. Anyway, it was just a really nice thing. I think that helped them, I think really understand things a lot better. Then not too long after that my uncle was killed and very tragically, a train hit his truck and he was killed.
Shannon Minter: [00:08:30] His son who's my double cousin knew what was going on. He knew why I wasn't coming home and that I was transgender. He thought, I think, his father's passing, so he realized, it was so upsetting to him and he realized that time is short and he just thought it was terrible. I wasn't able to come and see my grandmother in particular. Because she and I had always been very close. He told my grandmother that I was transgender
Shannon Minter: [00:09:00] and tried to pave the way for me to be able to come back and see her. It was wonderful, so I did, I did. That was after the 7 years and that was great. That was great, I still remember very vividly seeing my grandmother for the first time
Shannon Minter: [00:09:30] after all those years. She was very happy to see me. I spent a lot of time with her after that. I came back a lot after that. It was great to see everybody again. The whole town was wonderful really,
Shannon Minter: [00:10:00] people could not have been more loving or accepting. They're great people who are just absolutely wonderful. Anyhow, so then that helped my parents also become more accepting. A few years later, my father was diagnosed with cancer. I spent the last, my sister and I both spent the last month of his life with him,
Shannon Minter: [00:10:30] and that was great. I was really happy to have that time with him. He was trying really hard to be more accepting. My mom is still living, I'm very happy about that. She's really been wonderful and I spend a lot of time with her now.
Shannon Minter: [00:11:00] After my dad's death, moved to Oregon to live with my sister. My sister is a lesbian, by the way too. My wife and I just a few months ago, we're able to buy my grandmother's old farm house in that little town. I've been spending a lot of time there. I hope I'll be able to retire there,
Shannon Minter: [00:11:30] if I can talk my wife into it. Everybody there has known me since I was a kid. It's been a really wonderful experience. There's a lot of pain along the way, but I feel we're really lucky to have been able to reconcile with my family,
Shannon Minter: [00:12:00] and my whole family and this place, this town. I think it's pretty great and pretty amazing experience actually.
Mason Funk: Wow. Thank you. We interviewed yesterday a native American woman here in DC, who similarly lost her family. Maybe like you, lost not just her nuclear family.
Mason Funk: [00:12:30] As you know, as an Indian American family, his cousins and grandparents and aunties and uncles up the wazoo. A culture and a tradition erased. Her story has not yet come around like yours did.
Shannon Minter: That's so painful, it's the worst thing.
Mason Funk: What did you do with the pain before you were able to, how did you manage the pain of losing your family in the years that you're building a career and becoming so successful.
Shannon Minter: [00:13:00] I think I just tried to disassociate myself ...
Mason Funk: Incorporate my question into your answer.
Shannon Minter: Sorry, okay yeah. During all those years when I was not able to be with my family, it was the worst pain I can imagine. Because I love them so much.
Shannon Minter: [00:13:30] The only way I could deal with that was to just try to completely cut myself off from those feelings of, from just trying not to think about them and trying not ... It was too painful, it would just be too painful to think about them and how much I love them and miss them. I really just threw myself into work and work all the time. I just worked all the time.
Shannon Minter: [00:14:00] That's not good for a person, it's not a good way to be. I feel like in many ways, my emotional development has been stunted. I'm really thankful that I was able to finally reconnect with my family in the place where I grew up.
Shannon Minter: [00:14:30] I feel I'm just now really having a real emotional life where I'm actually present and not trying to cut off or strangle off whole pieces of myself. I'm 55 years old, so it's late to be doing all that
Shannon Minter: [00:15:00] but better late than never. It's pretty wonderful now though, I have to say. I really appreciate, I really do feel lucky and I appreciate having the chance now to try to connect with people.
Mason Funk: Can you talk about the faith piece, why are you on the board of Faith in America.
Shannon Minter: I'm on the board of Faith in America. I think that being, the experience of so many LGBT people have
Shannon Minter: [00:15:30] and I had of growing up in faith communities that are so great. I mean it's wonderful to have that experience. It gives young people a sense of meaning and continuity with the past and hope. Just a foundation for understanding yourself and the world in a positive way. That's certainly what it was for me.
Shannon Minter: [00:16:00] I have such great memories of going to church in this little town. Both my grandparents were there and my dad's mom was my Sunday school teacher. It was wonderful, just wonderful, peaceful place and a really special place. Being cut off, that was terrible, I really did, I thought I was damned, I really thought I was damned.
Shannon Minter: [00:16:30] I'd read those verses in Romans about certain people being vessels of wrath, destined for destruction. I thought I was. I wasn't even able to envision any kind of future for myself. I was just floating out there with nothing and nobody and feeling like, I still, I mean I went through phases of intellectually questioning the existence of God.
Shannon Minter: [00:17:00] I think on a real fundamental level, Id just been raised that way, so then I did believe and I do still. Feeling like you're rejected by God, it's a pretty horrible place to be. I don't know if I wouldve made it honestly, and a lot of people don't. It's probably about the worst thing you can,
Shannon Minter: [00:17:30] well maybe not the worst, but it's a bad thing to make a kid feel. When I was in high school and my parents were not able to accept me. I had a high school, my government teacher, Mr. Jackson, his name was Larry Jackson and he's passed away now. He was a very devout Christian and kind of a fundamentalist Christian actually. He saved my life because
Shannon Minter: [00:18:00] he and I had been close. He had already taken an interest in me. I was kind of a nerdy, smart kid. He already was trying to help, give me some extra help. Then I came back after the summer when my parents found out that I was lesbian, told him what was going on. He had me check in with him like, every morning.
Shannon Minter: [00:18:30] He would just make sure I was okay. He was really good. He told me that even though you know, based on his beliefs he thought that being gay was a sin,
Shannon Minter: [00:19:00] but he said it was not any worse than a lot of things he did. He was, somehow, he just had a great intuition I think, about how to talk to a gay kid. Even though I didn't fit his world view.
Shannon Minter: [00:19:30] He told me that he wanted me to know that personally, it didn't disgust him. He didn't have a negative emotional reaction to it. It didn't change the way he felt about me and that yeah, it was a sin but so is a lot of other stuff. That was really actually helpful.
Shannon Minter: [00:20:00] I learned later that's what you are supposed to say to a kid or a child that you think might end up feeling suicidal. That was really great. He really helped me so much. I think he probably saved my life. When I went out to college, I went through periods of praying to not be gay. It was funny, I had a girlfriend,
Shannon Minter: [00:20:30] she was in the army stationed you know, army base. It's like about an hour away from Austin, Fort Hood in Killeen. I would drive to her house every Thursday night when my classes were over. I'd be praying the whole way that God would make me not gay, and she's a Mormon, raised Mormon. She was just as tortured about it as I was. I would get to her, she lived in a little trailer park. I'd get to her trailer and I'd be like, "Well I prayed the whole time nothing happened,
Shannon Minter: [00:21:00] so what's for dinner." Anyhow, so that went over a long time. I'm just was, as an adult, very strange for many kind of religious faith because of all this. It has only been in the last I don't know, a few years that I've been able to reconnect with my faith. That's been wonderful too.
Shannon Minter: [00:21:30] That's been really, really good. I don't think I'd probably was able to do that until I had that experience of reconciling with my family. I actually go back to that church now, that little church where my grandmother was my Sunday school teacher. That's been really great. The people there are wonderful, the pastor there is really wonderful. That's been a really healing experience for me.
Shannon Minter: [00:22:00] That is when I'm on the board of Faith in America, because they are so, that's their whole mission is to try to prevent that kind of damage from being done to young people. It's very focused on the harms to young people when the anti-LGBT messages are conveyed through religion. Just trying to confront people of faith and different denominations and different faiths.
Shannon Minter: [00:22:30] The whole premises, that people really do not understand all the damage they're doing. I think that's true, I do not think that most people have any remote idea how damaging it is to give this kind of messages to young people. When they do understand that, most people will stop doing it. They really will. It's just, we've been horrible as a movement about talking to people of faith. I think because so many of us had this horrible experiences
Shannon Minter: [00:23:00] and they just don't want anything to do with people of faith. We don't want anything to do with faith communities. We're very angry, understandably so. The only conversations we do have are accusatory in a way that's not helpful. I mean, Faith in America is not about that, it's about really explaining, "Hey, this is the impact of these things you say to young people." You're really causing some serious harm.
Shannon Minter: [00:23:30] I think just now, I think they've been kind of a lone voice on that. I think now maybe more people are recognizing that it's something that we need to do and the benefits to young people and adults. Especially young people too being in faith communities. You can't just tell a kid like me or any kid that's grown up in any kind of particular spiritual culture.
Shannon Minter: [00:24:00] It is a culture, it's a culture and you can't just tell someone, "Oh, well, go to the Unitarian church." It's like telling them, "Leave your culture behind." It's not so simple. I mean it's great to have the Unitarian church and other churches that are accepting. What we need is for the communities and the cultures and the faith cultures that young people grow up in.
Shannon Minter: [00:24:30] They need that culture. They need to be accepted in those terms. You can't just substitute in a whole another faith culture for that, it doesn't work that way.
Mason Funk: That's really interesting, I never thought of that. I totally relate to what you're saying. Because it just perpetuates the [inaudible]. I mean, if you have some churches that accept you, but the other churches, the ones where you grew up and were raised, that don't accept you. It's not going to, it's just not [crosstalk]
Shannon Minter: [00:25:00] It's certainly better than nothing, that's for sure. No, it's like taking, I mean yeah, no.
Mason Funk: It's like saying you're an Indian person, well your Indian culture rejects you, but go here, there's a lot of Pakistani people over there.
Shannon Minter: Yeah, it really is. I don't want to get too far feeling the philosophy. We've got a, it doesn't, that's why we can't just create a separate gay culture and take gay kids who are rejected
Shannon Minter: [00:25:30] and say, "Hey, come over to this gay culture." It doesn't, it's just not the way things work. Particularly it's very unhelpful for LGBT youth of color. Because the gay culture we've created has mostly been you know, it's kind of a white culture. It's really terrible for LGBT youth of color that we don't do more, we don't recognize more of that.
Shannon Minter: [00:26:00] The youth need to be supported in their own communities. We got to give all these communities you know, like mine rural, religious communities and communities of color. We have to give them the opportunity to figure out how to accept and support LGBT young people on their own terms. The terms that make sense in that culture.

Interviewed by: Mason Funk
Camera: Kate Kunath
Date: August 07, 2017
Location: Home of Shannon Minter, Washington, D.C.